Birdman

****1/2 (out of five)

Birdman-Movie-Poster-KeatonBirdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fantasia on celebrity, persona, art, criticism, family and, more than anything, theatre, is so kinetic and percussive that I left the cinema giddy with excitement. It’s like a roller-coaster for cinephiles: working mainly in the confined spaces of a Broadway theatre, González, in an echo of Hitchcock’s Rope, makes the film appear to be, with the exception of book-ending scenes, one, enormously long continuous shot. Rope was set in an apartment but Birdman’s theatre setting has many rooms, long corridors, and, of course, the stage, so it has tremendous dynamism; Hitchcock was confined to elegant dolly moves but González and his cinematographer, (the great) Emmanuel Lubezki, have all of Steadicam’s mobility combined with CGI faux edits. Combined with a purely drummed score and huge swathes of rapid-fire, crackling dialogue, the film is a ride.

Its big theme is career crisis and personal validation, but its big thrill is how wonderfully it gets across the realities of backstage life. The theatre where superhero movie star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is producing, directing and starring in a self-adapted play of a famous Raymond Carver short story, the St. James, is grimy, worn in, claustrophobic and dilapidated, and the stuff of theatre actor’s dreams. It is the biggest character in the movie and thoroughly loveable. Its beating heart is reflected in the many backstage workers always on the edges of the frame or scooting through it; some we understand what they’re doing, some we don’t, but they’re as lived in as the theatre, Broadway unionised techs and mechs with all the lingo. “Break a leg, Mr. Thomson” says one as Riggan rushes to an onstage call. In theatre, you don’t not address the star, but you do call them by their last name.

Being so hectic, the film may wear out some, and some may find its characters simply too self-involved to appeal, but anyone with a taste for the theatre, the craft of acting, or Broadway itself will be in their element. The film restricts itself so much to the interior of the St. James and the immediate buildings around it that when it even moves a couple of blocks away it feels too spacious: we become accustomed to – indeed briefly addicted to – the close quarters of the theatre and its environs, and when we’re away from them feel adrift, because we miss that heartbeat.

An ensemble cast, lead by Keaton but by no means dominated by him, are all terrific. Ed Norton has the showiest role as a toast-of-Broadway actor who is both insufferable and legitimately brilliant; Naomi Watts once again nails a really tough challenge: playing an actress who has a role just slightly beyond her abilities, she shows us that actress’s limitations – in other words, she does some really good “bad acting”. Andrea Riseborough shows huge vulnerability (and the ability to play American) and Lindsay Duncan gets a meaty slice of an appearance as the New York Times Theatre critic. But the performance that leaps off the screen the most is that of Emma Stone; playing Keaton’s daughter, she is by turns irritating, exasperating, mysteriously compelling and ultimately moving. Stone has an extraordinary look but she has never been shot so well as she is here; Lubezki has brought out her otherworldliness (those eyes!) more than any other cinematographer, and in many scenes she is a startling presence.

Rope, in keeping with its conceit of appearing to be one take, took place in real time, whereas Birdman, while borrowing the conceit, actually takes place over four or five days and nights. Some may call its methods of achieving such temporal elasticity magic realism or stylisation; I think that the film simply plays by its own rules. It is hugely ambitious, rambunctious, loud and thrilling; it takes risks at every step, and while not all pay off, most do in spades. It’s not always funny but when it is, it’s hilarious. It is also highly original – and that always deserves credit. Maybe it’s not a masterpiece, but it’s definitely a wonder.

St. Vincent

** (out of five)

St_Vincent_posterContrived and melodramatic, Theodore Melfi’s debut feature St. Vincent is a desperate, “look at me!” example of screenwriting-by-numbers. Every possible story beat is walloped within an inch of its pre-programmed life: you’re meant to cry at minute eighty-nine, but by god you’re gonna cheer at minute ninety-four!

Bill Murray, in an Oscar-baiting performance, is very good, as is Naomi Watts (as a hooker with a heart of gold!), and that’s it. They’re doing their best in a seriously derivative, predictable and frankly schmaltzy tale of an old Brooklyn boozer, Vincent, who starts looking after the enjoyably upbeat son of his new neighbour, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy, the most over-rated actress in Hollywood, again delivering a completely unbelievable performance, alongside her ludicrous Tammy, also of 2014).

The kid is played by a genial fellow named Jaeden Lieberher, and he’s fine, and the scenes between him and Murray have no essential problems in the acting department. It’s the script that is terrible. The only reason you won’t be able to predict each of the gazillion creaky plot twists is because you’ll be astounded, in this day and age, that someone made such an obvious, over-used, creaky, old-fashioned, easy choice. Spoiler alert: just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, Vincent has a stroke. Cue acting. Sorry, Bill; they’re not gonna give you an Oscar for this.

What Would Oliver Stone Have Done?

J. EDGAR *** (out of five)

Clint Eastwood’s new film J. Edgar is another in a long line of attempts to capture some of the insanity that was J. Edgar Hoover. The best before this one was The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, from 1977, directed by the irascible Larry Cohen and starring Broderick Crawford as Hoover. What made that film so fun was its salaciousness: claiming to be based on the secret files of J. Edgar Hoover that “escaped the shredder” upon his death, the film implicates Hoover in the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, amongst a cavalcade of other misuses of his long-held office. J. Edgar Hoover was not a pretty man, and that film did not paint a pretty picture of him.

The new film, surprisingly, goes in a different direction, and I guess it’s a direction that I wasn’t so fond of traveling. It feels like, along the way of researching Hoover and trying to figure out what made him tick, Eastwood and his titular star Leonardo DiCaprio decided that the man had a soul. Like Oliver Stone’s weirdly polite W, J. Edgar seems to bend over backwards to find nice things to say about someone whom the world has generally agreed was a despicable person.

Like all of Eastwood’s period pictures, it’s extremely handsome in its production design, proceeds at a stately pace, and features an unbelievably authentic-feeling supporting cast: wherever Eastwood finds his “unknowns”, they always seem to have absolutely stepped out of the era in which his movies are set. The age makeup is fantastic on DiCaprio. But on Naomi Watts, as his career secretary Helen, and Armie Hammer, as his career right-hand man and lover… well, that’s a different story. Watts’ makeup, when she’s meant to be her oldest, simply doesn’t look real. Hammer’s is a step up from that. The first time we see his character Clyde Tolson at his eldest is a shock: his age makeup is so extreme that it’s a little laughable. Clyde has had a stroke, and I guess, historically, he aged a lot more – and a lot worse – than Hoover. Even if Hammer’s makeup is slavishly true to this, it doesn’t help the movie: every time he’s onscreen as his eldest self, he looks silly.

 

 

 

 

 

This is a shame because Hammer, and Clyde, are the most interesting thing about the movie. Why anyone could be in love with Hoover is anyone’s guess, and the movie disappointingly doesn’t attempt to examine that question in the slightest, but at least it recognizes Clyde Tolson’s existence, and his place in Hoover’s life. Indeed, unlike the 1977 film, which was an Oliver Stoneish exposé of political office, J. Edgar is a love story. The fact that one of the lovers is someone you wouldn’t want at your dinner table means that the film is handsome, well crafted, well acted, but, ultimately, not nearly as involving as it might have been. Frankly, I really wish Eastwood had put the boot in – but I guess that’s just not his style.